February 11, 2014 at 9:56 am

Tennessee Republicans raise stakes in VW plant's UAW vote

The vote on whether to adopt a German-style 'works council' starts Wednesday at VW's Chattanooga, Tenn., plant.In this June 12, 2013, photo, workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. VW calls the plant a model for energy conservation and efficient production, but officials are mum about whether the facility is in line to produce a new crossover SUV. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig) (Erik Schelzig / AP)

The political pressure on Volkswagen AG’s Tennessee workers ratcheted up ahead of a vote scheduled this week on representation by the United Auto Workers.

Politicians and outside groups warned that a vote in favor of UAW representation could threaten expansion of the plant and new jobs. They said it will hurt Tennessee’s ability to attract new businesses.

UAW president Bob King last week accused conservative financiers David and Charles Koch of running a “disinformation” campaign and expressed confidence the UAW was on the verge of succeeding in Tennessee.

The vote on whether to adopt a German-style “works council” starts Wednesday and runs until 8:30 p.m. Friday at VW’s Chattanooga plant. It will be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

A “yes” vote to a works council by a majority of Volkswagen’s 1,550 workers eligible to vote in Chattanooga “could prove vital for competing globally and would be very important for the union,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor studies expert at the University of California Berkeley. “That is a pivotal vote.”

It could help determine whether the UAW will be able to win similar bargaining units at BMW AG’s plant in Spartanburg, S.C., and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

King has said he doesn’t think the union has a future unless it can organize foreign auto plants.

Conservative groups are funding an opposition campaign, while Republican politicians in the state oppose the UAW’s efforts to organize the plant. VW has come under heavy pressure from Republicans who have pressed it to take a tougher line with the union; they say if the union is successful it could harm the state’s reputation for attracting new business.

On Monday, Tennessee State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, said if VW workers vote to join the UAW, then “I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate,” according to local news reports.

Shaiken called Watson’s comments an “unusually crude threat meant to influence an election.”

“It’s almost as if they are re-fighting the 2008 presidential election. It gives a strange feel to the proceedings,” he said.

The UAW said in September a majority of employees signed cards to join the union. Officials point to that as reason they’re confident they’ll win over workers.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told the Tennessean newspaper he thought the unionization effort could hurt the state’s ability to attract new suppliers. “When we recruit other companies, that comes up every time,” Haslam said last week.

Tennessee is a right-to-work state, so if workers vote to join the UAW they won’t be required to be members.

Conservative groups have put up billboards criticizing the UAW; they have used photographs of Detroit’s blight to prod workers into rejecting the union. The National Right to Work Committee and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform have been pushing to convince workers not to join.

Tennessee State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said Monday that outside groups should leave the decision to workers. “Volkswagen and the UAW agreed to an election process that gives workers the rare opportunity to express their desire and make a decision on union representation in an environment that is free from intimidation and coercion,” she said.

Volkswagen is being pressured by its Global Works Council, which represents workers at major VW plants around the world, to implement a works council system at the automaker’s lone U.S. assembly plant.

A German-style works council is different than the current labor setup of the UAW: Councils consist of a group of white- and blue-collar workers who meet with company management to discuss plant issues.

If a works council is approved, the plant would have a spot on the VW Global Groups Works Council.

Of VW’s more than 60 major factories worldwide, Chattanooga is the only one without a union.

The UAW also is trying to organize Nissan Motor Co. workers in Mississippi.

With unions under attack and some states — including Michigan — adopting right to work laws, King and his likely successor are vowing a tougher stance. The union is less than one-third the size it was four decades ago.

UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, who has been endorsed by the union’s Reuther Caucus to be the next president when members vote in June, said the union needs to challenge its critics and conservatives.

“Dammit, enough’s enough. We want to fight again. We’ve got to fight,” Williams said last week. “It’s time to get it on ... We can’t outspend them, but we’ve got boots on the ground.”

The UAW has repeatedly argued that if it can’t organize foreign auto plants it won’t be able to win pay raises from Detroit’s Big Three automakers, who are competing with non-union plants.

Frank Fischer, VW Chattanooga CEO and chairman, in a statement Saturday praised the idea of a works council.

“Our Works Councils are key to our success and productivity,” he said. “It is a business model that helped to make Volkswagen the second-largest car company in the world.

“Our plant in Chattanooga has the opportunity to create a uniquely American Works Council, in which the company would be able to work cooperatively with our employees and ultimately their union representatives,” Fischer said, “if the employees decide they wish to be represented by a union.”

VW, which has invested $1 billion in the Chattanooga plant and has created more than 5,000 jobs in the area, has said the political controversy won’t distract it from meeting its aggressive goal of 800,000 U.S. vehicle sales by 2018.

Last month, VW announced it will invest $7 billion in North America over five years and confirmed it will bring a mid-size SUV to the U.S. market in 2016, but didn’t confirm if it will build it at its Chattanooga plant.

Volkswagen has a bit of history with the UAW, which organized workers at the automaker’s former assembly plant in Westmoreland County, Pa., in 1978. A Mitsubishi plant in Illinois that started as a joint venture with Chrysler Corp. has workers represented by the UAW.

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Sen. Bo Watson (Erik Schelzig / AP)
Volkswagen team member Mike Jarvis talks at a meeting of VW workers ... (Angela Lewis / AP)
UAW-Secretary-Treasure Dennis Williams (Max Ortiz)
Volkswagen has come under pressure from Republicans to take a tougher line ... (Erik Schelzig / AP)